Native English speakers, a quick help needed with a sentence
March 12, 2018 10:24 AM   Subscribe

Doing some translation work, and I think I've stumped myself by overthinking things. So below the fold, a sentence and its context, and the question is simply, have I understood the sentence correctly?

The context is this, and the confusing sentence in bold:

The theory that is behind the whig interpretation – the theory that we study the past for the sake of the present – is one that is really introduced for the purpose of facilitating the abridgement of history; and its effects is to provide us with a handy rule of thumb by which we can easily discover what was important in the past, for the simple reason that, by definition, we mean what is important "from our point of view". No one could mistake the aptness of this theory for a school of writers who might show the least inclination to undervalue one side of the historical story; and indeed there would be no point in holding it if it were not for the fact that it serves to simplify the study of history by providing an excuse for leaving things out.

So am I correct in understanding the bolded sentence as saying basically: this theory is unsuitable for anyone who has a balanced view of history? As in, "no one could mistake" means essentially "no one would think that"? So the sentence basically says: "the whig interpretation is useless for anyone with a balanced understanding of history"? Right?
posted by Pyrogenesis to Education (17 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Yes. I think it's like, "No one could possibly miss how suitable this theory is for writers with an unbalanced view of history."
posted by lazuli at 10:28 AM on March 12 [7 favorites]

It’s an awkward sort of double negative, with the ‘no one... mistake’ structure. Paraphrased: ‘everyone can see how apt this view is for those who would seek to undermine one side of an issue.’
posted by SaltySalticid at 10:30 AM on March 12 [1 favorite]

Lazuli teased out what was bothering me about the use of the word "aptness," but what are we to make of "might show the least inclination to undervalue..."? Read on its face, it seems to me to say the opposite of "seek to undermine," though I agree that that interpretation makes far more sense. Is it meant to be sarcasm?
posted by teremala at 10:36 AM on March 12

To me "show the least inclination" means anyone who has any inclination at all. I recognize that's not the literal meaning, though, so yes it's sarcasm or similar.
posted by anadem at 10:41 AM on March 12 [1 favorite]

Yeah, teremala, that's what threw me off too I think. Why would it be apt for those with least inclination to have an unbalanced view? Judging from the context it should be the opposite. But yeah, I now see it, also anadem you also read it that way: it's not literal, which I absolutely did read it as.
posted by Pyrogenesis at 10:45 AM on March 12

Agreed with anadem, I had like two paragraphs written as an answer earlier, then lazuli had such an incredibly succinct one that I just decided not to post mine. But I do think that's the confusion in OP's interpretation - "who might show the least inclination to undervalue one side of the historical story" doesn't in this case actually mean "those who show less inclination than anyone else to undervalue one side," because that amount would be zero, but rather "those who show even the tiniest but non-zero amount of inclination to undervalue one side."
posted by solotoro at 10:47 AM on March 12 [1 favorite]

Yes, "least" there means "even the slightest."
posted by praemunire at 10:49 AM on March 12 [1 favorite]

Then yes, I can certainly live with reading it as "no one could miss that this theory is very apt for a school of writers who might show just the least little bit of inclination to undervalue..."
posted by teremala at 10:49 AM on March 12

You're on the right track, but the sentence boils down to "this theory is obviously useful for writers who are even slightly inclined to favor one side of the story." That's not quite the same thing as "the theory is useless for those who wish to present a balanced view."
posted by drlith at 11:03 AM on March 12 [4 favorites]

I agree with drlith that you go to far if you interpret the sentence to mean that the whig theory is useless for anyone with a balanced view of history, because the unbolded portion of the sentence explains why it would be useful for those with a balanced view: it simplifies the study of history.

I also think the "writers who might show the least inclination" expression is meant to lend a cautionary tone. It's not just writers who are grossly inclined to undervalue one side of history who might find the whig theory apt. Even writers with a mostly-balanced view who have the least inclination to undervalue one side of history will be encouraged in this tendency by the whig theory.
posted by layceepee at 11:18 AM on March 12

Excellent, thanks everyone. I've been doing this thing for more than a decade now, and still learning. Not only did I misread the "least" part, but was thrown off by the "mistake" part as being literal, while the trouble was with the inclination bit all along.

And now the difficult bit: how to convey this sort of creative double negative metaphorics in a different language.
posted by Pyrogenesis at 11:31 AM on March 12 [1 favorite]

Also, for anyone who cares, the quote is from Herbert Butterfield's great classic, The Whig Interpretation of History, often credited as the text which almost single-handedly put historical science on a new track. It is mostly because of this book that presentism is now considered to be a major fallacy.
posted by Pyrogenesis at 11:42 AM on March 12 [1 favorite]

> how to convey this sort of creative double negative metaphorics in a different language.

I wouldn't worry about that; it's more likely that this is an example of misnegation than of creative prose style. English speakers are very prone to this; see here for a collection of Language Log posts on the topic. It's not a matter of bad style or even, really, of sloppy thinking -- our brains are just not very good at dealing with this stuff. So I'd just translate the meaning (as you see it) directly.

I must confess that I thought that the Whig interpretation was the theory that history shows steady improvement, not that we study the past for the sake of the present, but since the quote is from Butterfield himself, I guess I should recalibrate my ideas.
posted by languagehat at 11:59 AM on March 12

Thanks, languagehat. But you're still basically right, in that while whig history is defined broadly in the book, it is in substance targeted against celebratory self-centered progessivism. Pesentism is basically the concept that makes good what Butterfield saw but only demonstrated about 19th century British historians' ideas of steady progress towards themselves.
posted by Pyrogenesis at 12:07 PM on March 12 [1 favorite]

I have to admit, English is my first language, and it took me a while to figure out what the author meant. Usually, if a sentence begins "No one could mistake…" I would expect it to take a form like "No one could mistake an apple for an orange" but the author veered off in a different direction.

So yeah, the writer is saying "Anyone can recognize that this theory would be useful to a school of writers who are prone to undervalue one side of the historical story."
posted by adamrice at 1:46 PM on March 12

also, in the first sentence, just after the semi-colon, shouldn't "effects" be singular? The subject is "this theory" so the correlation would be "and the effect is"—right?
posted by MovableBookLady at 3:47 PM on March 12

I don't believe so, MovableBookLady - the singular nature of the antecedent theory is correctly referenced by the possessive pronoun "its" (rather than "their") - but a single theory can have multiple effects. "The theory's effects are" is grammatically as correct as "the theories' effects are."
posted by solotoro at 6:23 PM on March 12

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